The Future of the RPG Industry

Keeping your ear to the ground is important in any endeavor – almost as important as getting mentoring advice. When I started blogging about RPGs in 2008, I spent a lot of time adding blogs to my RSS feed reader to keep me “in the loop”. I also added a variety of forums such as EN World and RPG.net – and then I discovered the RPG Bloggers Network… soon I was getting over 200 posts per day in my feed reader labeled “GAMING”. It was information overload at its worse. After some trimming, I generally limit the number of blogs or other “streams” I follow so that I’m not buried. One of the streams I do follow is the discussion forums tied to the Role Playing Game Designers Group on Linked.com. (You have to be a Linked.com member to see it).

Recently, William Bradford started a discussion titled “When do you think the next pen and paper RPG implosion will happen and why?“. This sparked an interesting discussion wherein it was suggested that the lines between tabletop and computer-based RPGs will become ever the more blurred overtime. This is already becoming evident with people exploring the use of Google Wave for RPG gaming; not to mention PbP email/forum games that have been around for years.

(The blogs Spirits of Eden and At-Will have some excellent posts to get people started on using Google Wave for RPGs)

Then, after reading through the comments that followed, I remembered that this is a topic that rears is head fairly often in the RPG blogosphere and in the rpg forums. I became aware of the shear fear of it all last summer when I read James Mishler’s mult-part rant “The Doom of RPGs: The Rambling“, which prompted over 60 comments.  He later followed up with “Rambling II“  and “Rambling III“. His main issue is the pricing of the content, and how gamers are cheap bastards, and how once they have the rulebooks they never need to buy anything new again. And how gamers are old (Get Your Dice Off My Lawn!) and kids would rather play Pokemon or World of Warcraft. This makes it hard – very hard – (read:impossible) to make a living solely from publishing RPGs. A very entertaining read to say the least, but perhaps he missed the point. Or perhaps I did. He seems to make the a big issue of the cost to produce the game materials vs. the price people are willing to pay for them. Trollsmyth (and tons of other bloggers who I won’t link here) wrote a comment on Mishler’s rant, “Supply, Demand, and the Teetering RPG Industry” and presents another excellent insider-view of the of the industry and where it is heading. Things are not hopeless, there are shining spots for the future of the RPG market that do not lie in 30-year old brands that are in their 5th stage of revisions. The audience for traditional tabletop RPGs has grown old, and don’t need to buy any more games. (Of course, if you are a collector of course, which Randall over at RetroRoleplaying pointed out is a whole different market and not enough to sustain the industry.) These old timers (me) have very limited time on their hands, and (unlike when they we in college) can’t get together all that often with 4 – 8 like minded gaming nerds to roll dice and geekout. Technology, however, provides us with tools to make gaming happen anyway (see Google Wave above), and Trollsmyth argues that the future of “table-top” gaming will depend on how well RPG companies leverage the technology to support their games. WotC has managed to do this, or at least attempted to do this, with DDI. White Wolf / CCP is also following suite (see below); and I expect more companies to do so in the future. But again… perhaps I’m missing something. Joseph Goodman, of Goodman Games, seems a bit more optimistic about the future of our hobby – just read for yourself his view on 4E D&D; and how much of a success it has been.

There have been tons of posts in the blogosphere about how technology is changing the game table (see Mad Brew Labs “Untapped Potential of Technology” for more).  There has been plenty of speculation about how tech is going to, or currently is, changing everything in table-top gaming; how technology is harkening the doom of the battlemat, the dice toss, and sitting around a table gaming together. John Arcadian, over at Gnomestew.com, wrote recently “Will Tabletop Roleplaying Survive?” where he comments on the impending effects of technology on tabletop roleplaying, and how our beloved hobby will survive or change as a result. Again, the future lies in the blurring of the lines between computer RPGs and their tabletop counterparts. He only scratches the surface of this issue though. Gareth-Michael Skarka of Adamant Entertainment, declares “Teh Fyooture is a’ comin’” (great quote btw – prompted the graphic above) in a brief livejournal post “Rough Beasts Starting To Slouch….“. Hopefully we’ll see what he has to say about “teh fyooture” soon, but in the meantime you can read what he linked to in Malcolm Shephard’s post “White Wolf: Now It’s Semi-Official” – basically pen and paper games are becoming “legacy products” for CCP – and they will likely be cancelling the production of printed hardback books for the foreseable future. Ouch. Sorry FLGS – you lose.

It seems, fair readers, that Technology Wins in this case.

For another view point – in “Whither D&D;?“, Trollsmyth suggests that

“RPGs may already have missed their best shot at a Renaissance in popularity.” 

But a reader of his counters that perhaps instead

“it isn’t roleplaying per se that’s gone out of fashion so much as it’s dice-rolling and character sheets that have fallen out of favour.” 

This speaks nothing of the technology vs. tabletop experience – instead the issue is that people don’t want to roll dice. In another post where he explores this issue more, and points out that the crunch is completely ignored by a new breed of “free-style” roleplayers.

“They need core mechanics and monster statblocks the way a fish needs a bicycle.”

Well said. Players just want to have fun playing cops and robbers – there’s no need for hugely expensive books if all you want to do is “pretend”. No books means no industry, right? Trollsmyth adds

“If that’s the general attitude, RPGs as a business are doomed.”

But is it? I say no.

Matthew Colville takes a pro-technology viewpoint in his post “The Inevitable Future of Tabletop Gaming where he writes: 

The future [is] about the younger generation to whom the hobby is best for anyway, who don’t have our hangups, don’t have our assumptions or experience and to them, an iPhone or something like it will be something they take for granted. 

Another view can be found by Noisms in his post “The Children are our Future!“, but perhaps a comment left in the same article by Robert Fisher is more to the point:

“… don’t tell me we have to turn the hobby into something different to compete with all the newfangled stuff. My kids see the value in traditional games and activities that haven’t needed to be updated to appeal to them. They’ll turn off the TV, PS2, Wii, computer, iPod, etc. all on their own for activities that have stood the test of time. The even beg me to do it with them.”

So… what does all this mean? Honestly, I’m not sure. It seems that the lines between cRPGs and table-top RPGs will invariable become blurred in the future. It’s inevitable for no other reason that people like to tinker around with technology. I think the industry should not only welcome this change, but should embrace it and find ways to preserve the “feeling” of the table-top gaming experience with all the spinywiny that technology brings to bear. This is all assuming that the big companies can find ways to better market the games we love to a younger generation – otherwise, regardless of what changes come down the pipe, the games as we know them now will fade away into the collector bins. What we’ll be left with then is a crowd of smaller, indie press companies who are producing “old school” games for no other reason than they love them.

But… would that necessarily be a bad thing? I think not.

post-edit: I should note that Wyatt Salazar, author of Spirits of Eden, blogged about this topic some time ago here on The Core Mechanic. You may want to jump over to that post to see a very different view on this topic.

7 thoughts on “The Future of the RPG Industry

  1. Kevin — YES! 100% Agree. The trouble comes down to marketing that exact point to the new generation. I think 4E has done a great job in terms of bringing the rules of the game in line with what younger players might prefer / expect — but I'm left feeling like it could be marketed a bit better. Our local Barnes & Noble, for instance, has placed the 4E spinning rack back in the corner of the Western Novels section… … .. .

  2. The biggest problem with console RPGs and computer MMOs is the lack of human-driven NPCs. The AI-driven worlds can be fun but are not a real "replacement" for the table-top experience. They are simply different entertainment options, like anything else would be.

  3. The majority of gamers don't want the tabletop experience. They want what CRPGs and MMORPGs provide; this is why D&D4; will ultimately fail, as it tries to replicate that experience in a medium that can't match the strength of those aforementioned RPG media- as more player figure that out, they'll quit D&D4; for something else, depending on preference.

    Instead, the future of TRPGs comes from focusing on its unique strengths as a medium and seeking out a new demographic to bring into the fold- we have to fire the existing fans.

  4. @BCW – perhaps. Games like Witch Girl Adventures might be in line with what you are talking about. I tend to disagree though – I think many of the younger cRPG/MMO fans just don't know what a table-top RPG _is_. Maybe what we need is for more outreach from the publishers — like running cons games at events that ttRPG cons; Savage Worlds con game at E3 anyone?

  5. I believe that the future of the RPG industry and the hobby as a whole is somewhere in the middle of the ageless quality of dice chucking and character sheets and computers.

    As I sit here, I'm writing up my players next adventure using my computer with an SRD that I have access to with my mobile phone.

    I think that apps on the iPad and other larger touchscreen technology that can process the rules, hold character sheets, generate images, upload those images to a larger medium for the entire group to see, and so on and so forth could not only revitalize the hobby with newer players, but create an entire new branch of industry developers.

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